Etymologists at War with a Flower: Foxglove
By Anatoly Liberman
The origin of plant names is one of the most interesting areas of etymology. I have dealt with henbane, hemlock, horehound, and mistletoe and know how thorny the gentlest flowers may be for a language historian. It is certain that horehound has nothing to do with hounds, and I hope to have shown that henbane did not get its name because it is particularly dangerous to hens (which hardly ever peck at it, and even if they did, why should they have been chosen as the poisonous plant’s preferred victims?). On the face of it, the word foxglove makes no sense, because foxes do without gloves and even without hands. The scientific name of foxglove is Digitalis (the best-known variety is Digitalis purpurea), apparently, because it looks like a thimble and can be easily fitted over a finger (Latin digitus “finger”). See more about it below. The puzzling part is fox-. It was such even in Old English (foxes glofa, though the name seems to have been applied to a different plant), so that nothing has been “corrupted,” to use one of the favorite words of 19th-century etymologists, both professional and amateurs.
It is amusing what fierce battles have been fought over the origin of the word foxglove. Walter W. Skeat broke many a spear defending the simplest etymology (foxglove is fox + glove), but neither he nor anyone else has been able to explain how the Anglo-Saxons came by this name: why fox? Regardless of the solution, reading Skeat is always a pleasure, and I will probably devote a post to a selection of quotes from his letters to the editor. With regard to foxglove, he remarked: “…everyone writes on etymology, more especially such as do not understand it.” How true, how very true! Among other things, Skeat produced an impressive list of Old English plant names with obscure references to animals in them, for example, fowl’s bean, cow-slip (not cow’s lip!), ox-heal, catmint, and hound’s fennel. And we know dog rose and wolfsbane, to mention just a few oddities. Each of them needs an explanation, and I think Skeat pooh-poohed the question too hastily. He wrote: “… [to us] such names as fox-glove and hare-bell seem senseless, and many efforts, more ingenious than well directed, have been made to evade the evidence. Yet, it is easily understood. The names are simply childish, and such as children would be pleased with. A child only wants a pretty name, and is glad to connect a plant with a more or less familiar animal. This explains the whole matter, and it is the reverse of scientific to deny a fact merely because we dislike or contemn [sic] it. This is not the way to understand the workings of the human mind, on which true etymology often throws much unexpected light.” Unfortunately, the Anglo-Saxons were not children, and though, like us, they certainly enjoyed playing with language and inventing “pretty names,” those names cannot be written off as silly or irrational. So let me repeat: foxglove does go back to a word that means exactly this (fox-glove), and all attempts to explain it as a “perversion” of some other compound or phrase are misguided, but the reason for endowing the flower with such an incomprehensible name has not been discovered.
The idea to trace foxglove to folk’s (or folks’) glove is relatively recent. It may have gained popularity after the publication of the book English Etymologies by William Henry Fox (!) Talbot (1847). We read the following in it: “In Welsh this flower is called by the beautiful name of maneg ellyllon, or the fairies’ glove. Now, in the days of our ancestors, as every one knows, these little elves were called in English ‘the good folks.’ No doubt, then, these flowers were called ‘the good folks’ gloves’, a name since shortened into foxgloves [sic]. The plant is called in French gantelée (little glove); in Latin, digitalis, and in German, fingerhut (thimble). It is worthy of remark, [note the comma!] that the Greeks appear to have called it by a name which is different from the above, but not inappropriate, ‘the trumpet flower.’ At least, so I conjecture from the name salvinca applied to it in the middle ages, which is doubtless from the Greek salpigga, a trumpet. In addition to what was said before, it may be reminded that these flowers are called in Teviotdale [Scotland] witches’ thimbles, agreeing partly with the Welsh; the witches, however, taking the place of the fairies.”
Beware of etymologists who pepper their explanations with no doubt, undoubtedly, obviously, and the like. Talbot, the inventor of photography, to whom I have once referred in this blog, was a well-read and talented man, but it would have been better if he had not written a book on word origins. By a funny coincidence, the Latin name digitalis was coined in 1542 by Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566), a famous scholar and one of the founders of modern botany (German Fuchs means “fox”). The flower fuchsia, whose pronunciation is a torture to foreigners, and the color fuchsia (the color of digitalis purpurea!) are named after him. According to The Century Dictionary, Fuchs called the flower digitalis inspired by German Fingerhut “foxglove.” French gantelée was already known in the 13th century. History’s little joke connected Fuchs, H. Fox Talbot, and foxglove.
Belief in fairies, as in Midsummer Night’s Dream, has no roots in Old English, so all talk about good folk’s glove(s) lacks foundation. R. C. A. Prior, the author of Popular Names of British Plants (1863), was a first-rate specialist in botany, but not in etymology, and his assertion (foxglove from foxes-glew, allegedly, meaning “folk’s music,” “in reference to the favourite instrument of an earlier time, a ring of bells hung on an arched support, the tintinnabulum, and thus answering to Norwegian Revbielde” [that is, “foxbell”]) is also sheer fantasy. Glew, or rather gliew (Modern Engl. glee), designated the sound of musical instruments, so that the ringing of bells should be dismissed as irrelevant. One wonders again what the fox has to do with our flower, but first a correction and a warning. The Norwegian for foxglove is revebjælle or revebjølle (one letter in the middle is missing from Prior’s form). Also, at his time, the literary norm in Norway required that Norwegian words be spelled according to the rules of Danish orthography, and the Danish for bell is bjælde. Prior may have found bielde in some dictionary or he may have copied the word with two mistakes. The moral: one should never copy foreign words without looking them up in good contemporary sources. Even The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology cited the nonexistent revbjelde (from the OED), and I see it occasionally surfacing in the Internet (The Century Dictionary did much better). Old Engl. foxesclofe has also been pressed into service, but cl- would not have yielded gl-.
Thus, a few wrong etymologies have been debunked, but what the sly fox has to do with the foxglove remains a mystery. An echo of the once well-known tale, North Germanic or Classical? To my regret, no Scandinavian dictionary I have consulted discusses the Norwegian word. In Dumfriesshire (south-central England), foxglove is called tod-tail, and tod means “fox.” The second element poses no problems, for the bells of this plant bear some resemblance to fingers. There is a kind of grass called fox grass. Does anyone know why it is called this? The Century Dictionary gives several names of the Digitalis: fox-fingers, ladies’ fingers, and even dead-men’s bells. In sum, foxglove means foxglove, and this disturbing fact has to be accepted. “One of the queerest crazes in English etymology,” says Skeat, “is the love of paradox, which is often carried to such an extent that it is considered mean, if not despicable, to accept an etymology that is obvious.” He cited attempts to invent a clever explanation of foxglove as an instance of the “queer craze.” But, with due respect to the great scholar, it must be said that obvious etymologies are often wrong, that foxglove causes legitimate surprise, and that folk etymology is the result of speakers’ healthy rebellion against the impenetrability of the words we use (or the conventional, seemingly arbitrary nature of the sign, as linguists put it).
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”